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WP: For NFL Quarterbacks, It's All in Their Heads


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For NFL Quarterbacks, It's All in Their Heads

But Timetables for Success Will Vary

By Leonard Shapiro


Steve Spurrier has played or coached the quarterback position virtually his entire life and knows first-hand that bells do not ring and light bulbs do not flash to signal the moment that a quarterback finally has mastered the job of running an NFL offense.

"It's a continual process," he said. "It's like golf. You can never think you've got it. It never happens in an instant."

For Michael Vick, there was a click -- a definite moment that came a year ago when the Atlanta Falcons renamed their plays. In 2001, Vick told the Sporting News, "I'm overwhelmed a little bit. The verbiage in the office has caught me by surprise. But if you study, you can learn anything."

He did. And he had a breakthrough season last year.

The story is the same with teams across the league this year. Marvin Lewis's success with the Cincinnati Bengals turns on the education of Carson Palmer. In Baltimore, rookie Kyle Boller has been moved from understudy into the starting job. Steve Mariucci returns to his home town of Detroit with Joey Harrington starting his second season. David Carr is in the same spot in Houston.

In Florida, sons of Super Bowl quarterbacks try to master the game. Brian Griese (who is the son of Bob Griese and spent six years with the Denver Broncos) tries his luck in Miami with offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Rookie Chris Simms, who is the son of Phil Simms and slipped to the third round in the draft, goes to school with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jon Gruden.

And in Washington the education of Patrick Ramsey continues for Spurrier.

For some quarterbacks -- some high draft picks (think Todd Blackledge) -- there's never a moment when being an NFL quarterback is child's play. For some, it's instantaneous. For others, it takes time to grasp the most complicated position on the field. Rich Gannon played for three teams (including the Washington Redskins) before finally finding a home in Oakland. After playing in one game in his first NFL season in 1998, St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, pressed into service because of an injury to Trent Green, took his team to a Super Bowl victory.

Similarly, there is no blueprint for constructing a championship quarterback. Five of the last six No. 1 overall choices in the college draft were quarterbacks, and most of their scouting reports probably read the same -- big body, big arm, huge potential. Still, what's in their heads and their hearts can't be measured until they start playing in a game that's far faster and more complex than anything they've experienced.

Players like John Unitas, Joe Montana and John Elway were the prototypes, but consider that the last three Super Bowl winners were led by Baltimore's Trent Dilfer, New England's Tom Brady and Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson, none of them superstars. But all had success because they played within the framework of their offenses and did not try to shoulder the whole load.

"You obviously can win with a quarterback who is not a star, provided the team is strong enough," said former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh. "There are quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, guys like Bart Starr and Bob Griese, who got there because they basically managed their team so well they won. The team was not totally dependent on them. You need a great defense and a solid offense that also can run the ball."

Baltimore offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said Dilfer did exactly what the coaches asked of him in leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl after the 2000 season.

"Trent was a good, quality quarterback who was surrounded with a solid run game, with an offense that didn't turn the ball over and controlled the ball and a great defense," Cavanaugh said. "That was the winning formula with us. St. Louis did it with an offense that just threw the ball all over the place and was explosive, and the defense held on. You've got to play to the strengths of your personnel, and that's what we try to do."

Still, teams also invest millions trying and more than occasionally failing to find the franchise quarterback. Some teams can't even recognize them on their own rosters. Brett Favre was drafted by Atlanta before being traded to the Packers. In 1998, Warner was exposed by the Rams during the expansion draft that stocked the Cleveland Browns.

Cleveland drafted Tim Couch No. 1 overall and played him right away. Two weeks ago, the Browns announced that the former golden boy will be replaced as the starter by unheralded, but far more effective, Kelly Holcomb.

In the days before free agency, teams often had the luxury of drafting talented quarterbacks and letting them sit back and learn for a few years before being asked to play. In the 1970s and '80s, the general rule was that a quarterback needed four to five years to get a significant grasp on the offense. Now, the learning curve allows only two or three years, if that, especially for a first-round pick often touted as the future of the franchise.

"We live in a microwave society; we want it now," said Chris Palmer, offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans and the expansion Browns' first head coach. "But sometimes we judge our quarterbacks too soon. It took Phil Simms five years to get on the field [with the New York Giants]. Tennessee gave [steve] McNair some time to learn the game, and look what they've got now. But in today's market, it's hard to do."

In Cleveland, where Palmer's quarterback was Couch, circumstances dictated playing him right away. Two years into the process, Palmer was fired. Last year, Carr, the overall first-round pick, was the starter for the Texans. With Palmer the offensive coordinator, Houston opted to let him learn on the field because the team, playing its first season, had no expectations for major success.

"They all have to go through a learning process, and it normally takes about a year," Palmer said. "An individual who's thrown into battle right away will probably struggle the whole year. He'll never really get his wits about him. I had Drew Bledsoe in New England. His first year, he got hurt and had to sit out three weeks. It gave him a chance to see what was happening on the field, and when he came back, he was much better after that."

Although he can't describe a timetable to learning the NFL game, Cavanaugh knows how to recognize a quarterback's arrival.

"The first year, really, your head is swimming," he said. "There's a lot of terminology you're not familiar with and you're trying to get it right. . . . Sometimes a guy can come in and grasp things pretty quickly. Maybe there's some carryover to what he did in college. By year two, a guy should have everything locked in. But the real good ones step up. You find out real quickly they're capable of playing, they understand what's going on around them. If that's the case, you give them more and more to handle, put the responsibility on their shoulders, and they usually rise to the occasion."

Boomer Esiason, a Pro Bowl quarterback with the Bengals, said he started to "get it" in the second preseason game of his second season in Cincinnati.

"We scored 42 points and I distinctly remember saying to myself, 'I can do this,' " he said. "No rookie, even a guy like Dan Marino, will tell you that he knew what was going on that first season. For guys like David Carr, or Patrick Ramsey in Washington, I'm sure they'd tell you it's night and day from last year. Now at least you know what the coach is saying. Last year, you were just trying to write it down and get it in your head."

Esiason and others also believe a quarterback must be grounded on and off the field.

"You have to know everything that's going on out there, and even if you don't know, you have to act like you do," he said. "If you don't, 10 guys in that huddle will look into your eyes and say 'we can't win with this guy.' And there's so much more attention paid to the game, and especially that position. The money, the pressure to perform at a high level, it's really a true baptism under fire."

Walsh believes that pressure is always there for the veteran quarterback, as well.

"History shows there will always be flat spots along the way," he said. "The quarterback who's had success can also lose focus. They become so affluent that maybe they lack the intensity that got them all the money in the first place. Maybe they don't give it the time they once did. And, of course, the cast of characters changes all the time, so every year you have to start over."

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